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Jan 9, 2009

Eriksson escapes from Lazio limbo

When Sven Goran Eriksson's departure from SS Lazio was finally confirmed on January 9, 2001, a new era for English football had arrived. And it was happening ahead of schedule. England had their first foreign coach and would no longer have to wait for him.

Following the tearful resignation of Kevin Keegan in a Wembley latrine, Eriksson had been earmarked by the Football Association as the man to lift the national team out of the doldrums, thus eschewing the chance to return Terry Venables to a job much of the press pack thought was rightfully his. When Eriksson was announced as the new man on Halloween of the year 2000, there was a catch; the Swede was still contracted to Lazio.

The Roman club did not want to lose a manager who had brought them unprecedented success. Lazio had lifted the Serie A title for only the second time in their history the previous summer, and followed on the Coppa Italia of 1998 with the last ever European Cup Winners' Cup in 1999. The Biancocelesti even offered their already well paid mister a new £10m five-year deal after the FA came calling to Lazio's Formello training ground.

Eriksson had made many friends at the club, even infamously being allowed to squire Nancy Del'Olio by her husband Giancarlo Mazza, a very well connected dignitary at the club. He was also idolised by Lazio fans, though that would soon change in the face of his announced defection to London. Club president and grocery magnate Sergio Cragnotti, who had bankrolled the success by putting up the price of fruit juice and milk in Rome, acceded to Sven's request to leave for pastures new, especially as Eriksson pledged to complete the season as Lazio's manager.

The softly spoken son of a lorry driver prided himself on never breaking a contract with a club in his 25 years in football; England would find this out at considerable cost when his tenure came to an end. So when Eriksson was paraded to media scrum not lacking in malovence to the new man, it seemed he would not be able to begin his new job until June 2001, missing out on two vital qualifiers with Finland and Albania when his England were already dropping behind in their chase for a place at the 2002 World Cup.

This met with considerable disquiet among a hostile and cautious group of press and fans. Not only that, Sven had previous for breaking his promises. He had agreed to become the new boss of Blackburn in the summer of 1997, making a deal with club owner Jack Walker to take over at Ewood Park having seen out his contract at Sampdoria. Yet the lure of Lazio's lucre had stopped him taking the job, much to the annoyance of many in Lancashire. With such a time lag between the big announcement and the projected beginning of his contract, many thought he could do the same if another of Europe's leading lights were to come calling.

The reaction on November 1 in British newspapers to the Eriksson appointment was mixed to say the least. Though Soccernet had welcomed Sven to England, saying that "he is the right man for the job, if not necessarily at the right time or, currently, in the right place", Jeff Powell, gave his infamous opinion on the matter in the Daily Mail.

"So, now, the mother country of football, birthplace of the greatest game, has finally gone from the cradle to the shame. England's humiliation knows no end. All that is left for the football men of England is to pull the sackcloth up over our heads and let the grave-dancers pile on the ashes," he ranted. Powell went on in inimitable style and though his words were at the extreme end of dissenting opinion, they still reflected a groundswell that England should be for an Englishman.

Eriksson had the job he had always wanted, as Roberto Clagluna, his former managerial partner at Roma in the mid 1980s, revealed: "One of the first things Sven said to me when he arrived in Italy in 1984 was: "One day, Roberto, I'm going to be the manager of England." In securing the fated "Impossible Job", Eriksson had his heart's desire and a hefty contract worth £13m over five years.

Over in Rome, events soon meant that he would be collecting his new wage quicker than previously agreed. Sergio Cragnotti's son Massimo, who had assumed many of his father's responsibilities at Lazio, soon went on the offensive when the team started to underperform, criticising defensive tactics and faltering results. By Christmas, things were looking bleak for Lazio's hopes of retaining their title and the they looked in danger of failing to clear the hurdle of the second Champions League group stage.

The FA themselves were unhappy too. The Cragnottis seemed determined to stop Eriksson being able to play any part for England during the remainder of his contract. His had been a distant watching brief when caretaker manager Peter Taylor had taken a young group of England players to, of all places, Italy, to be beaten 1-0 in Turin. Massimo Cragnotti was said to be heavily against his attendance of an upcoming friendly against Spain in February, which left confusion surrounding those two qualifiers at Easter.

While publicly backing Taylor to do a fine job until the permanent coach was in place, FA chief executive Adam Crozier, the driving force behind the appointment of Eriksson, planned a mercy dash to Formello to convince the Cragnottis to allow Eriksson to pick a team for the Spain game. Though Crozier said "it is worth waiting for the best people" it was clear that his best laid plans were going awry.

The panic was soon over and Crozier would not be required to fly to Italy. Despite club captain Alessandro Nesta voicing his support, an Eriksson exit strategy was in place. Cragnotti senior decided enough was enough, calling Eriksson to a meeting on January 8 after a weekend defeat to strugglers Napoli. The writing was on the wall when the president publicly told the Swede that his club could not be allowed to "lurch from one crisis to another". A meeting at Casa Cragnotti ended with Eriksson telling press: "I am not resigning but I am going to meet with the players tomorrow morning and see what the situation is."

Heavy pressure had been placed on Eriksson to fall on his sword and the following day saw him decide to take the hint. Driving to training in his Volvo he decided to tell his players he would indeed be leaving, making sure they "were the first to know about it".

Lazio asked club vice-president Dino Zoff to again be their coach as they sought to rescue their season. That evening saw Lazio play a friendly against the Chinese national team and Cragnotti, Eriksson and Zoff put on a united front with the owner regaling fans with a gushing tribute to the departing boss from pitch side.

Over in London the relief was palpable with a smiling Crozier able to confirm that Sven would soon be in situ. "In the end what's happened is good for everyone, for Sven, for England and for Lazio," he said, also choosing to dismiss creeping doubts over Eriksson's recent history at Lazio. "What's happened has not taken the gloss off his appointment. We know what we're getting."

Sven would soon settle into his latest luxury life. Though as ever with this quiet and seemingly unassuming man with the ability to almost always get the best for himself, there would be collateral damage. Lazio have never recovered from the Eriksson/Cragnotti partnership and its excesses while Peter Taylor, who lost the chance to coach his national team for the next three matches, would not be the last Englishman to fall victim to the Eriksson effect.

Still, England had their man...

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